Team ropers practice skills in Craig essential to working cowboys and cowgirls | CraigDailyPress.com

Team ropers practice skills in Craig essential to working cowboys and cowgirls

Tom Ross

Wendy McKee of Craig, a two-time barrel racing champion in the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series, takes part in jackpot team roping for the fun of it.

Here in Northwest Colorado, cowboys and cowgirls don't need much of an excuse to rodeo — it's what they call "chores."

And when you're ready to get up close and personal with rodeo's roots, the Thursday jackpot team roping event, hosted by the Craig Roping Club at the Moffat County Fairgrounds, is a great place to hang out.

If you doubt these are real cowboys, introduce yourself to Pat Terrill and his 21-year-old team roping horse, Harry.

Terrill, who ranches 7 miles west of Craig at Sand Springs, said Harry is a do-anything mount he can depend on.

That horse is old enough to drink!That horse is old enough to drink!

That horse is old enough to drink!

Recommended Stories For You

"That horse turned old enough to drink this year. He can rope calves, he can rope steers and he likes me," Terrill said. "He's just a good horse who's willing to do whatever you ask. We're going to brand a bunch of calves this weekend out in the bush on Douglas Mountain."

That means Harry will have to dodge sagebrush, badger holes and wire, Terrill added.

Jackpot team roping, as the name implies, does involve prize money. Among 50 or so competitors at the arena in Craig on a Thursday night in June, each contestant purchased as many turns in the arena as they wanted, and the entry fees went into the jackpots for each of several go-arounds.

Unlike pro rodeo, jackpot team ropers are never certain who their teammate will be. Each roper is given a handicap based on his or her prowess in much the same way golfers are. That allows event organizers to mix and match men and women, old men and boys to ensure the night's teams are as close to equal abilities as possible.

The roper who starts first and attempts to throw a looped head around the steer's horns is called the header. The trailing rider, who attempts to drop a loop and snare the steer's hind legs, is called the heeler. If the header fails, the heeler is out of luck.

Co-ed rodeo ropingCo-ed rodeo roping

Co-ed rodeo roping

Though there is both pride and money at stake, the handicap system keeps jackpot roping friendly. And the fact that teams often comprise a man and a woman makes it a social event.

Another barrel racer, Danielle Potter, from Stettler, Alberta, Canada, showed up in Craig with three friends on a stormy night in June to team rope, because she enjoys being in the company of horse people.

"I rope because it's fun," she said.

Northwest Colorado cowboy Nick Camilletti also appreciates the camaraderie of the sport.

"The best thing about jackpot roping is that you can start when you're 5 years old and still be doing it when you're 85," he said.

But Camilletti values the connection the sport requires between rider and mount, and the trust between two teammates.

"It takes years of working with a horse to understand what it can do," he said.

Roping teammates have to give each other the best opportunity to make a successful run and support each other, he added.

"If you start doubting, it means you're past the point where you're not a team roper no more," he said. "You have to take care of each other."

Wendy McKee, of Craig, won the Steamboat Pro Rodeo Series barrel racing title in 2013 and 2014, but lately, she's been team roping and finds it's challenging.

"I tried heeling, but that's ridiculous," McKee said. "To me, heading is probably more technical and involves more responsibility. Heeling happens much faster. The catch (by the header) is where it starts. The header has to control how the steer runs across the arena. For heelers, if I handle a steer right," the chances of success improve.

A different breed of horseA different breed of horse

A different breed of horse

Rand Selle observed that team roping involves two different kinds of horses and two styles of roping.

"The good guys rope both ends (head and heels)," he said, but sometimes, a roper loses his touch for the tricky timing of heeling. "I'll go back and forth," he acknowledged.

Rick Myers, who ranches on the Elk River in Routt County, said, in general, "headers are required to be more reliable all the way around."

Selle, originally from Miles City, Montana, owns Selle Rodeo Productions in nearby Dixon, Wyoming, and supplies the Corriente steers for the team roping in Craig.

The breed was originally brought to North America from Spain. The steers' heads are fitted with padding that protects their skin and ears from the lariats that are tossed to catch their horns. Selle may not have heard it, but the ropers in Craig on June 23 were praising his animals for playing their important roles in the event well.

Selle, who competed in rodeo for National American University in Rapid City, South Dakota, also has a good eye for roping horses.

The horses ridden by headers, he said, tend to be larger, say 16 hands, and more powerfully built, so they can explode out of the chute, catch up to the steer quickly and turn it to present its heels to the heeler.

"People tend to use a little cutting style horse for heeling," Selle said.

Similarly, there are two styles of roping, according to Selle.

The header throws a flatter loop in order to drop it over the steer's horns, while heelers essentially throw a bigger and perfectly-timed loop in order to "set a trap" for the bovine's hind legs as they drop toward the dirt of the arena.

Anyone who gets a chance to watch cowboys rope on the open range, or in a casual branding corral made of rope, will discover a greater appreciation for the difficult rodeo event of team roping.